- Season 2, episodes 1/2 - In The Shadow of Two Gunmen. Dare you to identify more riveting television than the first 30 minutes of this two-part episode, which portray the minutes/hours directly proceeding an assassination attempt on President Bartlett. Not only is this episode a rush of pure adrenalin, but it's also a fascinating lesson on the procedures that kick into place during such a crisis. See the staff at GWU Hospital jolt into action as they realize the call they just received on the red "emergency use only" phone isn't a drill. See Secret Service agents enclose the Vice President in a rugby-like scrum as they hasten him away from an honorary appearance back to the White House. See the highest-ranking members of the military and intelligence communities sitting tensely around the table in the Situation Room, wrestling over whether the assassination attempt is the work of a random madman or the beginning of World War 3. Riveting. And then ... and then Sorkin et. al. changes gears, giving us 90 minutes on how the members of Bartlett's inner circle came to be recruited, a chance for viewers to regain their breath while the writers showcase everything they do so well: a little slapstick (CJ falling into a swimming pool), a little human interest (Josh's father dying), a little liberal commentary on current events (Sam trying to talk an oil company into buying oil tankers that won't leak), and a big, whopping dose of idealism (Josh becoming a convert after hearing Candidate Bartlett admit that if it comes down to a choice between helping constituents or making milk a little cheaper for children in poverty, he'll screw his constituents every time). This episode could be a primer on how to create good television.
- Season 2, Episode 22: Two Cathedrals. The whole episode is amazing, but it's the scene where Bartlett stands in the middle of National Cathedral railing at God in Latin that takes my breath away. Before that, you get the sudden, senseless death of Mrs. Landingham (Bartlett's long-time personal secretary and friend) followed by a series of vignettes which show her, as a young employee at Bartlett's prep school, pushing young Jed to merge his academic precociousness with a social conscience, ultimately shaping him into the man he is to become. Her ghost, figuratively and literally, haunts Bartlett throughout the episode as he faces a momentous decision: whether to brave the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune (namely, announce his run for reelection, literally moments after confessing to the country that he has MS and has been hiding the fact for the past 4 years), or continue to fight for the principles he believes in. As Democratic leaders scramble to anticipate the enormous political chaos about to descend upon their party, as the members of Bartlett's inner circle struggle to cope with feelings of betrayal, and as a freakish, out-of-season tropical storm heads towards Washington D.C. to wreak havoc, Bartlett wrestles with his inner demons - questioning himself, questioning his purpose in life, even questioning God - standing right there in His face in the nave of the National Cathedral, demanding to know why duty, faith, and trying to do one's best aren't enough to satisfy Him. A question most of us have asked at one time or another, but - believe me - it's a whole lot more impressive in Latin.
- Season 1, Episode 10 - In Excelsis Deo. It's Christmas at the White House, which means it's time for another amazing West Wing holiday episode. In this outing, Toby comes to be notified of the death of a homeless Korean War vet and, upon learning the man has no family (other than a brother who is also homeless), arranges for him to be buried at National Cemetery. The President, upon learning that Toby has invoked his name in order to arrange for the funeral, confronts Toby in the Oval Office, asking him impatiently: "You don't think, if we do this, every homeless veteran is going to come out of the woodwork demanding to be buried at Arlington?" To which Toby gravely replies: "I certainly hope so, sir." Meanwhile, we learn that Mrs. Landingham's sons died during the Christmas season while serving in the Vietnam War, which explains how she and Toby end up as the only mourners at the graveside on Christmas Eve as the haunting strains of The Little Drummer Boy (performed by the Harlem Boys Choir, in a brilliant juxtapositioning of the graveside service with a special command performance in the pine- and holly-draped White House foyer) blend with the retorts of the rifles fired by the military honor guard as the veteran's coffin is lowered into the earth. I dare you not to tear up.
- Season 2, Episode 8 - Shibboleth. The plot about whether or not to give asylum to a group of persecuted Chinese Christians is the perfect pick for a Thanksgiving episode, but it's the subplot involving CJ and the turkeys that elevates this episode into my top 5. No matter how many times I see the episode, the scene in which CJ asks President Bartlett to pardon an extra turkey still makes me howl.
- Season 3, episode 66 - Posse Comitatus. Bartlett faces one of those ethical dilemmas that only world leaders understand: whether or not to order the assassination of a foreign leader (ostensibly a US ally) who, intelligence reveals, has been actively sponsoring terrorist attacks against the US. Agonizing over his decision, Bartlett grumbles, rhetorically, why this decision has fallen to him: "Because you won," his chief of staff Leo McGarry shatteringly replies. Meanwhile, the stalker who has been threatening CJ's life is finally captured, freeing CJ and her secret service bodyguard to finally admit that they have feelings for each other ... only to have the secret service agent gunned down in the course of a convenience store robbery moments later. But what sets the episode apart is how the two plots are entwined via a "spectacle" musical a la Andrew Lloyd Webber called "The War of the Roses," the finale of which is a song featuring the words: "And glorious in war shall be made glorious in peace," which swells in the background as CJ's beau falls dead onto the ground among a spray of crushed roses, and as U.S. rangers coolly, professionally carry out the assassination of the world leader at a small Caribbean airport. Not for nothing, the episode also contains one of the best Bartlett put-down of all times, delivered by the Pres as he's copping a smoke in the back of the theater across from the Republican candidate for president, Texas Sen. Bob Ritchie, who has just drawled (in response to the death of CJ's agent), "Crime ... boy, I sure don't know about that." To which Barlett devastatingly replies: "And, by the way, 'Crime, boy, I don't know about that,' is when I decided to beat your ass."
- Season 5, episode 17 - The Supremes. A seat on the Supreme Court opens and the Bartlett administration strains against the suffocating political reality that prevents anyone other than (yet another) moderate being confirmed by a Congress controlled by the opposite party. And then Josh Lyman comes up with an extraordinary idea: why not free up two seats and nominate both a brilliant liberal (played by Glenn Close) and a brilliant conservative? It's the speech at the end that takes my breath away, delivered by William Fitchner as conservative justice Judge Chris Mulready in the course of a conversation with President Jed Bartlett (paraphrased here): "Where's the brilliant dissenting opinion? The one that some law clerk digs up from a file late one night and that - 20 years later, 50 years later - emerges to fundamentally alter our perception of law? " As happens so often when watching this show, the episode makes me dream about how great a true democratic society - one in which people discuss ideas, rather than just yelling them at each other - could be.
- Season 6, Episode 22 - 2162 Votes. It's party time at the Democratic National Convention, where all delegates are required to do is wear funny hats, cheer a lot, rubber-stamp the party's nominee, and then play with the balloons. Or not. Though it's hard to imagine it happening in real life, this episode posits a dead heat between three candidates (Santos, Russell and Hoynes) going into the convention. But wait ... just when you think things can't get any more dramatic, a fourth candidate emerges from the floor to challenge the front-runners, and then all hell really breaks loose. Though unlikely, there's nothing here that isn't technically/legally valid, and the resulting chaos and makes for utterly riveting drama as each campaign scrambles to salvage their political lives. Plus you won't want to miss the galvanizing speech Santos (played by Jimmy Smits) delivers to the convention towards the end of the episode: I sure wish our politicians could whip up that kind of rhetorical dazzle! I, for one, wanted to hop in my car and dash off to the nearest polling place to vote for the man.
- Season 2, Episode 10 - Noel. This is the episode in which Josh Lyman struggles to cope with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (resulting from the wound he received during the assassination attempt noted above). Adam Arkin does a fabulous job as the traumatologist who is called in to talk Josh down from an impending crisis, but the teary moment is when John Spencer as Leo McGarry, speaking to Josh as he prepares to leave the White House, shares with him an anecdote, the moral of which is: "No one understands despair like someone whose been there before, and lived to tell about it." Say what you will, the West Wing writers sure knew their way around a holiday episode.
- Season 2, Episode 17 - The Stackhouse Filibuster. As Congress attempts to recess for the Thanksgiving holiday, a cranky senator launches a filibuster that holds up passage of a health care bill. Feel free to appreciate the episode as an informative primer on miriad ways that Roberts' Rules of Order can be used to stall Congress, but what I love about the episode is the marvelous twist at the end when Donna discovers that the Senator is on the side of angels and the White House sets aside political considerations to do the right thing for the Senator, his grandson who is afflicted with autism, and their consciences.
- Season 1, Episode 5 - Crackpots and These Woman. It's "Big Block of Cheese Day" at the White House, a chance for organizations that aren't usually given a hearing (i.e., crackpots) to present their issues to members of the senior staff. Toby is at his sarcastic best mocking the group of World Bank protesters he is assigned to, while Sam finds himself rethinking his ideas on UFOs and CJ struggles to cope with a briefing from "Cartographers for Social Justice," an organization that advocates the adoption of a more spatially accurate world map that shows all the continents upside-down. Very funny!
- Season 2, Episode 5 -And It's Surely to Their Credit. Ainsley Hayes's first day in the White House is a disaster. And then, just when her idealism is about to crack, Sam Seaborne steps up and saves the day, delivering a blistering retort to two obnoxious Congressional staffers, superbly backed up by John Larroquette ripping the paint off the scenery as White House Chief Counsel Lionel Tribbey. Plus, the episode is full of geeky Gilbert & Sullivan humor, which there just isn't enough of in the world.
- Season 2, Episode 9 -Galileo. This is the one where Jed Bartlett, space geek, spends the whole episode looking forward to doing a live address to America's schoolchildren about landing the Galileo space probe on Mars - only to have the mission fail the night before the broadcast. Instead of a train wreck, we get one of those marvelous morality lessons that West Wing does so well, delivered by CJ (and paraphrased here): "So maybe this is what we tell a million school children out there: You think you get it wrong sometimes? Why don't you come down here and see how the big boys do it! It's about going to the blackboard and raising your hand and not being afraid to fail." Here, here.
- Season 2, Episode 3 - The Midterms. Not that I'm exactly outing myself as a liberal here (think that ship sailed a long time ago), but adore watching Martin Sheen as President Bartlett take on conservative radio talk show host Jenna Jacobs, delivering an increasingly blistering series of biblical quotes designed to demonstrate the hypocracy of those who are okay with a metaphorical reading of the Bible most of the time but who insist on a literal interpretation when it comes to any passage regarding homosexuality.
Best West Wing Episodes Ever